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Nightmares are dreams that cause you to awaken with intense feelings of anxiety, fear or dread. The vivid content of a nightmare tends to be easily remembered. An episode of sleep terrors also involves waking with a feeling of intense fear. It often occurs along with a cry or piercing scream. During an episode of sleep terrors you may be unresponsive and appear to be confused. Both nightmares and sleep terrors are common in children and tend to be a normal part of childhood.
Is My Child At Risk ?
Nightmares usually start between 3 and 6 years of age. The proportion of children reporting nightmares reaches a peak between 6 and 10 years of age. Frequent nightmares can result from exposure to severe stress or trauma. Sleep terrors usually emerge in children between 4 and 12 years of age and tend to go away in the teen years.
Nightmares can be extremely disturbing to a child. They involve dreams that seem real. The action in these dreams tends to include danger or threat. Nightmares occur more often in the second half of the night during the stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. A child responds to a nightmare by waking up suddenly. He or she quickly becomes alert and usually responds by crying. Nightmares cause a child to seek comfort from a parent or caregiver. Although a child often is able to recall clear details of a nightmare, a young child may have a hard time describing it.
Sleep terrors, which are also called “night terrors,” tend to occur in the frst half of the night during the stage of deep, slow wave sleep. They are much less disturbing to nchildren than nightmares. A child often has no memory of the event. However, sleep terrors can be distressing for a parent or caregiver. The child sits up in bed and makes a loud, piercing scream or cry with a look of intense fear on his or her face. Other physical signs may include sweating, rapid breathing and a rapid heart rate. The child tends to be unresponsive. If you wake the child, he or she may seem confused and disoriented.
A child may be afraid to go back to sleep after a nightmare. Therefore, it is important to comfort and reassure your child. Discuss nightmares openly
with your child during the day. Assure your child that it is normal for children and even adults to have nightmares. Avoid exposing your child to frightening images, shows and movies. Talk to your child’s doctor if frequent nightmares disturb your child. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, such as imagery rehearsal therapy, may help prevent nightmares in children. Your child’s doctor may prescribe a low-dose medication to help reduce nightmares related to a traumatic event.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: CONTENT DEVELOPED BY THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF SLEEP MEDICINE